After her devastating withdrawal from her Paralympics debut, swimmer Bryall McPherson has rebounded back to be even stronger in the pool – fuelled by a return to her true love, tennis. Suzanne McFadden reports.
It was a week out from leaving for the Rio Paralympics when swimmer Bryall McPherson felt something go terribly wrong.
She was in the middle of an intense set of dolphin kicks, which propel a butterfly specialist, like McPherson, through the water.
“Kick-sets put a lot of strain on your lower back – and that’s made worse if you only have one arm,” she says.
She remembers pushing off the wall, feeling severe pain shoot through her back, then realising: ‘Oh my god, I can’t kick anymore.’
She called for a lifeguard to pull her out of the pool.
Well before she was told she had a stress fracture in a lumbar vertebrae, McPherson knew her chances of swimming in her first Paralympics looked bleak. “All I could think was – all this hard work, all these early mornings in the pool… bugger.”
McPherson was then faced with a choice. “I could have cortisone injections and have only once chance – at Rio – then my swimming career would be over. Or I could do it the natural way – no injections, let the body heal itself, follow the advice of my doctors and physios, and compete again,” she says.
She wasn’t afraid of making big decisions. Five years before, midway through her chemotherapy for bone cancer, the budding tennis star had to choose whether to keep her right arm and have a 50:50 chance of survival, or have the limb amputated. She had no hesitation in choosing the latter.
“I said I’d do anything to beat this cancer. I was only 19 and I hadn’t seen the world yet,” she recalls.
This time, the 28-year-old Aucklander made her decision with the same kind of conviction. “I don’t believe in quick fixes, or masking the pain. I want longevity in my career.”
So, as the rest of the New Zealand team flew off to Brazil, McPherson pulled the plug. Devastated, and “pissed off”, she didn’t go near a pool for a year.
“Everyone thought I’d quit swimming. But I just needed time away,” she says.
During that break, she took the opportunity to return to her true love, tennis. The game, she says, saved her life.
And now that she’s back in the pool, with the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics on her horizon, McPherson has never swum better. She’s breaking records and reaching personal bests.
She puts it down to being stronger than she’s been in 10 years, as the physical side effects of chemo continue to plague her. And to finally finding some balance in her life – a blend of swimming, tennis, study and family. “I’m happy again,” she says.
On Saturday mornings, you’ll find McPherson at the Scarbro Tennis Centre in Mt Wellington, having a hit-up with her mum, Eve. McPherson has become adept at powering the ball over the net with her left arm.
She’s lost none of her competitiveness, either. “I am the female John McEnroe,” she laughs. “I get super aggressive out on court.
“I say I have a ‘friendly’ game with Mum… we start out nice in the warm-up, but then we start hitting the ball really hard at each other.”
She feels like she’s come home – to the courts where she grew up playing tennis. “My tennis friends are family.”
McPherson was talented – playing top-level Auckland interclub tennis as a teenager with real ambitions to become professional. A psychology student, she’d secured a scholarship to a college in North Carolina in late 2008. But before she left, while playing a club match, she threw the ball up to serve, and her right arm broke.
After almost two weeks of scans and tests, McPherson was diagnosed with osteosarcoma of the proximal humerus – a bone cancer tumour in her upper arm.
“I owe my life to tennis. If I hadn’t been playing, I don’t think we’d have found out I had cancer until it was too late,” she says.
Although she knows she can never play at the level she once did, she’s found another way to return to centre-court. She now works as a line and chair umpire, travelling around the country officiating at tournaments.
“It’s my way of keeping my passion alive. Just being back on the court with professional tennis players, that’s more than I could ever ask for,” she says.
Last December, she was a chair umpire at the Te Anau Invitational, New Zealand’s third-richest tennis tournament. “I was a bit nervous. The guys I was umpiring, I grew up with them; I played with them.” Among them was Ben McLachlan, who made the men’s doubles semi-finals at this year’s Australian Open.
“I have moments where I think, if the cancer hadn’t happened, I could have been on that route as well. But hang on, I’m still alive,” she says. “The guys told me I’d given them inspiration to keep moving forward.”
When McPherson returned to the pool last year, she told her coaches she wanted to keep playing tennis. Together they drew up a training schedule including five days of swimming and one day of tennis a week.
“Incorporating tennis into my schedule has done wonders for me mentally. It’s reinvigorated me,” she says. “Being an athlete is a very mental game and it just feels so good to be hitting the ball around, being happy again.”
For the past year, McPherson has worked with her new coach, Simon Mayne, at the AUT Millennium pool. She also spends time with Christchurch-based Roly Crichton – coach of Paralympic swimming superstar Sophie Pascoe – when he’s in Auckland.
Mayne says he’s very mindful of making McPherson’s training enjoyable and sustainable. “I’m trying not to swamp her in the water. Before Rio, she got lost in the training. She’s a really good athlete – she likes the gym and cross training. Put her in the water and she’s able to shine as well.”
McPherson’s resilience gives her the ability to keep coming back, Mayne says. “It’s been a struggle for her, because the chemotherapy has given her other health issues. She goes really well for three or four weeks, then has to take a step back.
“But she’s pretty strongminded. I think she’ll get to Tokyo. I really want to see her get a medal.”
While the brutal rounds of chemotherapy cleared McPherson of cancer, it has left her with a heart condition.
She also lost a significant amount of weight – dropping to 43kg (“I was a walking skeleton”) – and, over the last decade, she’s struggled to build up muscle again. In the past year, she’s climbed to a much healthier 54kg.
“It took my body a long time to recognise how to turn protein into muscle. I’ve got much more strength in the water now, which is really beneficial when you’re a sprinter,” she says.
“I was too skinny before. I was like a twig in a tsunami. With everyone diving in around me, I’d be drowning in their waves.”
McPherson is back on track with her speed too. At the New Zealand short course championships last October she broke three national records and swam four personal best times.
Next week, she will compete in her first international swim meet in more than two years – the Pan Pacific championships in Cairns. One of nine New Zealand para swimmers competing, McPherson will race in the 100m backstroke and 100m butterfly.
Mayne wants her to swim one good time in each of her races to boost her world rankings, and McPherson aims to make the finals in both events.
“It won’t be easy,” she says. “We all know the Australians are brutal on their home turf. All I can do is my best, knowing that I’ve had a really positive build-up.
“The new revamped Bryall has a new outlook on swimming now, and there has to be an element of enjoyment to it. I want to soak it all up, and if this is the experience I want to continue, I’ll drive forward to the world championships next year and ultimately the Tokyo Paralympics.
“It will affirm to me that I do sport because I love it, not because others want it from me.”
The disappointment of 2016 also taught McPherson she needed something else in her life if she didn’t continue as an elite athlete. She’s back studying again – towards a bachelor of sport and recreation at AUT.
Experience tells her not to plan too far ahead, so she’s taking her dream of Tokyo one training session at a time.
“My motto is to live my life day-by-day, because you just don’t know what’s around the corner.”